Now, 15 species of coffee face extinction in East Africa

Tuesday May 21 2019

A farmer tending to coffee berries at a farm in Kabati, Muranga County. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG


East Africa’s coffee sub-sector is facing hard times, with a new study revealing that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania is home to 15 of 75 species that are threatened with extinction.

Already, Robusta and Arabica, the most popular species of coffee globally, are facing a bleak future.

Tanzania, Africa’s fourth-biggest coffee producer, said output beginning July may drop 23 per cent to 50,000 tonnes because of a drought and lower crop cycle. The Tanzania Coffee Board said the country had experienced a dry season in many growing areas.

The good news, according to Aaron Davis—a botanist from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK—is that there are 124 other unknown coffee species that can weather diseases and even climatic changes that have hit Arabica and Robusta hard.

According to the study published in the journal Nature, the 75 are three in five (60 per cent) of all the 124 coffee species.

Mr Davis and his colleagues analysed coffees using criteria from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and listed the 75 of which two come from Kenya and a 12 from Tanzania. Of the 75, 13 are critically endangered while another 40 are vulnerable.


The researchers noted that the living germplasm of the species nearly half of the coffees (45 per cent) are not collected and stored. More than a quarter (28 per cent) are not in any protected area.

Coffee is an important income earner for Kenyan and Tanzanian. As at 2018, the Tanzanian Coffee Board estimated that about 450,000 families in Tanzania grow coffee. This is nearly 90 per cent of all the coffee that is grown in Tanzania.

Arabica coffee accounts for more than half of the country's output. It exports over 12,000 metric tonnes annually — mainly to Japan and Germany — that were estimated to have fetched the country $192 million in 2018.

Kenya, on the other hand exports coffee to Germany and the US since domestic consumption of coffee in Kenya remains at a modest 3 per cent.

Poor agricultural practises among many smallholder farmers are causing the decline of Arabica and Robusta.

Wild coffee

For this reason, attention is slowly being drawn back to wild coffee for their tolerance of changes in the weather and resistance to, pest and diseases. They also have low or zero caffeine content and may even taste better.

Wild coffees in certain parts of the world, particularly Africa, received little or no attention at all yet they could be substituted for the two coffee species that are most popular.

For instance, the Coffea rhamnifolia in Northern Kenya and Somalia was not even documented over several decades due to inaccessibility caused by war.

When scientists discovered Robusta, it became popular because it resisted the coffee leaf rust, grew in many locations, had higher productivity and lower market prices. Additionally, it has a high caffeine content.

According to Mr Davis, Robusta has the “ability to add body to espresso and espresso-based coffees; it is now the species of choice for instant coffee.”

Despite this stellar resume, the plant is no match for the larger environmental challenges that all plants are experiencing.

The United Nation Environment Programme has identified improper land use, like slashing and burning and the excessive use of chemicals as a leading cause of habitat and forest loss.

In East Africa, commercial house construction has taken over even arable land that was initially used for farming. Coffee timber, Mr Davis explained, is often straight, hard and termite resistant, makes it a favourite for use in minor construction.

These, coupled with diseases, make the option for wild coffees more attractive alternative for the sustainability of coffee.